In late 1981, the US Navy made arrangements to begin replacing asbestos-containing parts on Naval aircraft with parts containing an asbestos substitute. Prior to that time, many parts contained asbestos insulation, and asbestos was used around engines and electrical wiring as a further insulator. Additionally, airplane brakes were lined with asbestos because of its resistance to fire and insulation against heat. Each time the airplane braked, friction against the asbestos would grind some of the asbestos to dust. When aircraft mechanics would then service the brakes, that dust was released into the air where they could inhale it. Asbestos was also used to strengthen epoxies and glues used on aircraft. While if left undisturbed this asbestos was well contained, if work on the plane involved removing parts covered in asbestos epoxy, or any buffing of these parts, large amounts of asbestos were released into the air. Naval aircraft mechanics aboard aircraft carriers faced additional asbestos exposure from the asbestos insulation that was used so extensively on ships built prior to the 1980s.Aircraft mechanics working in shops where construction was going on faced construction-related asbestos exposure in addition to the asbestos released as a result of their own work.
Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that is fireproof, insulates against both heat and electricity, and can be woven into cloth. It has been used for centuries. Asbestos fibers have even been found added to pottery in Scandinavia dating to about 3000 years B.C. The fibers are flexible, and break apart easily. When the fibers separate, and any other time the fibers are manipulated in some way, they slough off microscopic pieces of asbestos dust. This dust is very lightweight and remains airborne for a long time. Anyone nearby can then inhale the fibers.
When asbestos dust enters the body it gets imbedded in the lungs and in the membrane surrounding the lungs and lining the chest cavity. Once in the body asbestos causes a lot of different medical problems, including asbestos cancer since it is a carcinogen. The worst form of cancer caused by asbestos is malignant mesothelioma. This is a cancer that primarily attacks the tissue surrounding the lungs.
Numerous cases exist of aircraft mechanics developing asbestos-related illnesses as a result of occupational exposure. Mr. BJS is but one example of an aircraft mechanic with mesothelioma. He was a Marine Corps aircraft mechanic during the late 1950s and early 1960s who came into contact with asbestos in aircraft brakes and electrical insulation. He testified to Congress about how dangerous his job had been, but that at the time neither he nor any of his friends had known how deadly exposure to asbestos could be; they were just doing their jobs.
Mesothelioma, like most asbestos-related diseases, has a long latency period. It usually does not show up for several decades after exposure to asbestos. The first mesothelioma symptom is shortness of breath while exercising. Over time the symptoms get worse until eventually the mesothelioma sufferer can’t breathe even while at rest, and has terrible chest pain. If it is detected early enough, doctors can surgically remove the tumor and surrounding tissue and prevent its growth. If the cancer has already metastasized, surgery is not as effective since removing all of the cancer after it has spread is virtually impossible. After the cancer has spread doctors usually rely on a combination of chemotherapy and radiation to slow mesothelioma tumor growth. New medicines and technology are improving the prognosis for mesothelioma patients, but there is still no cure, and few people live more than two years after their initial diagnosis.